Nick Clegg interview: ‘There’s no gentle way of fighting back against Brexit’

The former Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg
The former Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg
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It’s almost six months to the day since Theresa May’s ill-fated snap election sent shockwaves through the political establishment. In the space of one night over 60 MPs lost their seat, with Labour claiming one of the biggest scalps of the night when it ousted the former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg from his Sheffield Hallam seat of 12 years with a little-known candidate who was subsequently suspended from the party.

Many politicians would respond to a knock-back of this magnitude by retreating from the public gaze and taking some time out to lick their wounds. But as a dyed-in-the-wool democrat, Clegg chose to come out fighting – and it will come as no surprise to those familiar with the passionate europhile that he has set his sights on Brexit.

The 50-year-old spent the months following the election putting the final touches to his new book How to Stop Brexit and Make Britain Great Again; a cross between a political think-piece and an instruction manual for those desperate to find a way to reverse the UK’s seemingly inescapable exit from the EU. True to Clegg’s previous line of anti-Brexit argument, the book is uncompromising in its criticism of Leave figureheads like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, and unapologetic in railing against the result of the June 2016 referendum.

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post at the beginning of a week in which the Government effectively found itself hostage to the DUP over its plans to avoid a hard border with Ireland, he is initially reluctant to put too firm a figure on the probability of halting the exit process. But eventually he agrees to “break his rule” on offering percentages and settles on “25 percent and rising”.

“Peter Mandelson put it very nicely, [when he said] Brexit may end up defeating Brexit,” he explains. “It’s been so badly handled, it ‘s been sold on such a pack of lies and people’s expectations are running so far ahead of what is realistically possible, that you would’ve thought at some point there’s going to be a major collision which may allow us – particularly young people who didn’t vote for this at all – to say ‘hang on a minute let’s think again’.”

“I still put most of my money on there just being a bad deal,” he adds as a caution. “A rotten deal in which we end up coughing up money, still abiding by European rulings and have a rubbish trade deal in return.

“[That’s] almost entirely due to the fact that Theresa May and the Conservatives took this unilateral decision, which they didn’t need to, not only to take us out of the European Union but to throw the baby out with the bathwater and also take us out of the Single Market and Customs Union.”

Somewhere on the spectrum between these two possible outcomes, he notes that there is also a chance that negotiation will result in “a very acrimonious falling apart” and the UK “crashing out”. He places much of the blame for such a scenario on “unblinking fanatics on the Brexit extremes”, pointing to figures like Iain Duncan Smith and John Redwood who advocate walking away from talks altogether and “becoming a sort of legally rogue state”.

Antagonistic phrases like “fanatics” and “bone-headed attack dogs” (a term of endearment he reserves for members of the right-wing press) are used frequently in the new book and in Clegg’s anti-Brexit rhetoric more generally. But asked whether he feels this is helpful in overcoming divisions and winning people over to his cause, he is unrepentant.

“The problem is there is no soft, gentle way of doing this,” he says. “We’ve been lied to. There are some very powerful vested interests in Britain... pumping out all this anti-European propaganda.

“I have no argument at all with the people who voted Brexit for perfectly understandable reasons because they were told a bunch of really good things would happen. I have nothing but contempt however for the people who should’ve know a lot better and chose instead to save their own political skins by fibbing to the British people.”

Reflecting back on the June election, he admits that his strong views on Brexit may have cost him his seat. Contrary to the “media narrative” that the former deputy PM was finally getting his come-uppance on tuition fees, he claims it was older Conservative voters who punished him at the polls.

He says he can pin point the exact moment during the campaign when this dawned on him. “It was when I was speaking to a very nice lady from Totley who was traditionally Conservative but has always lent me her vote because she preferred me and the Liberal Democrats to Labour,” he recounts. “She said ‘hello, thank you for everything you’re doing for us. I’ve voted for you before and I’ll vote for you next time, but not this time because you’re being far too beastly about Brexit’.

“It’s always been... very important for me to persuade Conservative voters to, in a sense, continue to vote for the devil they knew. And I could feel that was unravelling.”

He concedes losing to someone like Jared O’Mara – who has since been suspended from Labour over allegations of offensive behaviour – was “not the way I wanted my parliamentary career to end”. But he says he is “philosophical” about the result and is now channelling his energy into his think tank Open Reason, with a twin focus on Brexit and the interaction between politics and the tech sector.

Earlier this year he and his wife Miriam made the decision to speak out about their son’s battle with cancer.

He admits this was not done “lightly” – “we’re quite a private family” – but says they are pleased that it has raised awareness and funding for the blood cancer charity Bloodwise.

“The test for us was whether it was helpful to the charity... of course we wouldn’t have spoken out if Antonio was uncomfortable with it, but he was keen for exactly the same reasons,” he said.

“I am told that it was very welcome by Bloodwise... so to that extent we’re absolutely delighted.”